Is the Current Federal Government “Wrong on Crime”?

January 30, 2015: MP Joyce Murray’s “Breakfast Connections”

Thx to (wrongly convicted) Tom Sophonow for his presence here this morning….

Before addressing the topic at hand, let me tell you about one of the most egregious cases of wrongful conviction in Canadian history.

As I chronicle in my book, Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry, Henry was convicted in 1983 for 10 sex crimes; declared a dangerous offender six months later; spent the next 27 years in jail—-all of this for crimes he did not commit.

Acquitted in 2010, he has been waiting, going on five long years, for a dime in compensation. Instead of coming to grips with the inevitable fact that Henry, a senior citizen, is factually innocent, the federal and provincial governments continues to throw up legal roadblocks every step of the way. Meanwhile, Henry lives close to the poverty line.

Having tracked the injustices that befell Henry for almost four years, I conclude that every criminal justice stakeholder failed to protect and defend the “presumption of innocence” owed to every citizen—the police, the prosecutors, his own lawyer at the preliminary hearing; state-appointed psychiatrists, the parole board, Correctional Service of Canada; and the many politicians who were asked, over the years, to reopen his case.

The “presumption of innocence”, once lost, is almost impossible to restore. Absent DNA evidence, an iron-clad alibi, or the confession of the actual culprit, findings of “factual innocence” remain elusive. In Henry’s case, the state “lost” the semen samples and made no attempt to check out his alibi statement. As for the “actual culprit”, the state—for reasons I have yet to uncover—made Henry the scapegoat and let the real perpetrator go free.

For years, wrongful conviction inquiry commissioners have been recommending that, rather than treat claims of wrongful conviction on a piece-mail basis—as is happening with Henry—the British model should be adopted, namely the investigation of claims of wrongful conviction should be handled by a review agency independent of government. Further, it is that independent review agency, not the federal Minister, who should act as the gate-keeper.

“Change is needed,” said the commissioner in the David Milgaard case, “to reflect the current understanding of the inevitability of wrongful convictions and the responsibility of the criminal justice system to correct its own errors….

We are still awaiting the establishment of such an independent agency. Please do what you can to propel forward this important initiative.
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POLITICS OF FEAR

Is Canada’s new “punishment agenda” “wrong on crime?”

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:
But thus I counsel you my friends: Mistrust all in whom the urge to punish is powerful. They are people of a low sort and stock; the hangman and the bloodhound look out of their faces.

Sadly, the current Federal government is all hangman and bloodhound. To the best of my knowledge—I stand to be corrected—the word “rehabilitation” has never crossed the PM’’s lips.

What is the current policy, why is it wrong, and what can be done to convince Canadians to push back?

THE LEGAL FRAMEWORK

The Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA), enacted in 1992, governs the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).The CCRA strives—and this may surprise you—to, and I quote, “strike a fair balance between the two inter-related strategies of control and assistance—

“Control” meaning exercising reasonable, safe, secure, and humane control of offenders both in correctional institutions and under supervision in the community; and
“Assistance” meaning assisting and encouraging offenders to become law-abiding citizens.

The Act further provides:

The principal goal is public safety. This is promoted by proper control of offenders and with programs that help individuals rehabilitate. Rehabilitation programs are important because most offenders will complete their sentence and return to the community….

It is important to prepare inmates for a successful return to the community as law-abiding citizens. This strategy contributes to long-term public safety.

WAR ON CRIME

In 2011, the Tories removed the “faint hope” clause that allowed lifers to apply to a jury after 15 years for the right to an early parole hearing.

In 2012, they enacted Bill C-10: Safe Streets and Communities Act. As predicted, the Act has led to the need for more prisons; the incarceration of people for minor, non-violent offences; and poorer prison conditions including over-crowding, fewer “pro-social programs, and a higher incidence of “administrative” solitary confinement—Bottom line? Isolation of indeterminate duration.

The government, showing no signs of slowing down on its “war on crime”, has recently announced plans to make violent repeat criminals wait longer to achieve “statutory release.” As well, the Tories want to end the possibility of parole for some convicted killers.

Addressing the impact of Bill C-10 in his 2014 Annual Report, Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers said,

“Use of force interventions, inmate fights and assaults, offender grievances and segregation placements are all trending upward in recent years. Key indicators against which safe and humane custody may be measured show there is more crowding, more disease and more violence in federal institutions.
Prisons that are filled beyond their rated cell capacities are at higher risk of jeopardizing safety and security of the person. Unnatural or preventable deaths in custody (suicides, homicides, overdoses) are perhaps the most visible failing, but too many other lives either are cut short by premature death or are marked by injury.

An increasing proportion of the offender population is spending more of their sentence behind bars before first release…”

I have been asked to share this morning what I have learned—as a result of both my volunteer activities in prison and research for my book—about current prison conditions.

Increasingly, inmates are being deprived of educational and job training opportunities; hurdles are being erected to such things as creative writing classes, access to good quality books and book clubs. Access to programs, spiritual leaders and other mentors such as teachers and librarians is being restricted; prison farms are being shut down; access to independent psychologists is almost unheard of, etc.

After volunteering for 8 months, on Friday mornings, as a creative writing instructor at Matsqui Medium Security institution, one day I was “escorted”, out of the blue, off the property. Not a word of explanation; not a hint of an apology.

Months later, I was told the reason: I hadn’t taken a 3-hour volunteer training program, a program I had no idea existed…. I never went back. (I’ve talked to other volunteers who’ve had the same experience—the experience of not feeling wanted—especially among those who develop rapport with the inmates.)

When I developed pen-pal and “visitor” relationships with a number of prisoners, CSC treated me like an alien: On the one hand, to every appearance I was engaged in “pro-social” behaviour—behaviour aimed at assisting in the reintegration process. On the other hand, it was clear they believed I had some kind of ulterior motive.

I was once put on notice that I was writing to too many inmates; on another occasion, that I couldn’t be on more than one inmate’s visitor’s list, etc. When I threatened to go public, CSC backed down….

How many other families and loved ones would have the gumption to do likewise?

[One brief ray of light: Though I expressed frustration at the Joyce Murray breakfast that CSC appeared poised to reject my offer to donate my book to every federal correctional institution in Canada, they have now said I may. Needless to say, I would have gone public had they not.]
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LIGHTING A FIRE UNDER OUR CITIZENS

A. The Problem

By hyper-focusing on the rights and interests of the “victim”, our prime minister plays into what Dan Gardner has called the “science and politics of fear.”

In his excellent book, Risk (2008, Virgin), Gardner writes that humanity has never had it so good. Most people around the world are better off and will live longer than their ancestors.

But instead of being relaxed, we are scared that bad things will happen to us: nuclear war, cancer, child abduction.

Our brain anatomy, Gardner says, was fixed millennia ago—such that we are not equipped to process the complexity of modern living, especially where risk is concerned. We hear about a terrorist attack; we see the gruesome consequences on TV and, before we can calculate the probability that we personally will be blown up, our brains have reacted as if we are being charged by a rhino: no time to think! Run!

If you think you don’t believe everything you see on TV, he says, it doesn’t matter. Your Stone Age brain has processed the images and is using them to shape your opinions whether you like it or not.

“It could have been me” is a common response to news of a disaster, although usually the mathematical probability of it actually having been you is infinitesimal. FEAR SELLS.

The only solution, Gardner says, is to think more, think harder—The primitive part of our brains might be open to seduction by alarmist politicians, but, given enough time, the rational part can step in and stop us from going all the way.

Alas, if only re-programming were that easy…

Ask yourself: Are you a “free-range” parent or grandparent—content to give children as much freedom as possible, for example, play in the park or walk home from school alone; etc? Or do you catastrophize—worry about the ills could befall them—abduction, getting hit by a car, getting lost, etc?

B. The “Right on Crime” movement: Shifting the narrative

According to Texas Republican Representative Jerry Madden, “It’s a very expensive thing to build new prisons and, if you build them, I guarantee you they will come. They’ll be filled, OK? Because people will send them there.”

Texas and California, among other jurisdictions who had started down the same “punishment” road down which our government is leading us, are now—realizing it cost too much and made their justice system worse—reversing direction.

The topic today is whether Canada’s new punishment justice policy is ‘Wrong on Crime’? Ironically, this “Right on Crime” movement-led by Republicans, no less—is building momentum in the United States.

In an article entitled “The Conservative Case for Reform,” dozens of high-ranking Republicans including Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich write as follows:

“Too often the lens of accountability regarding government services has not focused as much on public safety policies as other areas of government. As such, Corrections spending is now the second fastest growing area of state budgets—trailing only Medicaid.

“Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending…. A clear example is our reliance on prisons, which serve a critical role by incapacitating dangerous offenders and career criminals but are not the solution for every type of offender. And in some instances, they have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders—making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered….

“An ideal criminal justice system works to reform amenable offenders who will return to society…

“Because incentives affect human behavior, policies for both offenders and the Corrections system must align incentives with our goals of public safety, victim restitution and satisfaction, and cost-effectiveness, thereby moving from a system that grows when it fails to one that rewards results.”

Viewed in the light of a system that “rewards results”, what sense does it make to remove the “faint hope” clause? Lock up low-risk offenders? Increase the time virtually every offender must spend behind bars?

From an economic perspective, does it make sense to deny forever the opportunity–not the reality—of parole to those convicted of certain first-degree murder offences? [Since the Joyce Murray breakfast, the government, anticipating court blow-back, has amended the bill so as to give judges the right to preclude parole applications for 40 (from the current 25) years.]

This despite Correctional watchdog Howard Sapers’ statement that 99 per cent of offenders released on day parole or full parole last year did so without reoffending.

Since the abolishment of capital punishment in 1976, the murder rate in Canada has been cut in half. Further facts:

—Canada has 1115 (first-degree murder) offenders sentenced to life, minimum 25 years. 203 have been paroled;

—Average cost to keep a man in Maximum security is $148,000 v. $35,000 on parole;

—40 years in jail would cost nearly $6 million for one person in Maximum security; $6 billion for 1,000; and

—In recent years, the website of CSC has described those serving life sentences as “The most likely to succeed on parole.”

The authors of “Right on Crime” point to the need take a principled approach to public safety. As they wrote, “Our security, prosperity, and freedom depend on it.”
Who would have thought that our Republican friends south of the border could offer their neighbours north of the ’49—neighbours historically smug about our supposedly “superior” criminal justice system—such invaluable insights?

As a wonderful prison chaplain once said to me, “Let he who has ears hear.” Let’s hope that we Canadians do just that.